Alaska is no stranger to disasters. The state has picked itself up and kept going despite oil spills, deadly earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and storms with hurricane-force winds. But it's a slow-moving disaster that could change life in Alaska dramatically in the next decade if nothing is done: the steady disintegration of the Port of Alaska in Anchorage.
A Very Important Port
The port was built in 1961 and rode out the Good Friday earthquake in 1964 with relatively little damage. But as the decades passed in Alaska's harsh environment, the docks, which were designed for a useful life of about thirty-five years, are failing and could become unusable in as little as ten years, says Jim Jager, manager of external affairs for the port.
Anchorage's deepwater port is a linchpin in Alaska's infrastructure. It's located near the head of Cook Inlet, where it is not subject to tsunamis like those that wiped out the harbor facilities in Whittier, Valdez, and Seward in 1964. About 90 percent of all of Alaska's goods enter the state by water. Half of that crosses the docks in Anchorage.
The port's three bulk carrier berths, barge berth, and two petroleum berths handle more than 3.5 million tons of food, consumer goods, building materials, cars, fuel, and other items Alaskans need, transferring the imports to Alaska's roads, planes, and pipelines to reach every corner of the vast state. It is one of nineteen commercial ports around the country designated as a Department of Defense Strategic Seaport. Last year, the Municipality of Anchorage renamed the facility, formerly known as the Port of Anchorage, to the Port of Alaska to better show its importance to the state.
Today, however, the 1,423 hollow steel piles that support the docks are eroding. Originally seven-sixteenths of an inch thick, some of the piles have lost up to three-quarters of their original thickness. The city of Anchorage budgets $3 million annually to encase the eroded piles with steel jackets and has covered nearly half of the piles to date. However, those jackets only last about fifteen years before they start to rust away. "There's no pile left underneath, so it's really a one-time fix," Jager says.
"Our challenge is, in about ten years we're going to have to start closing docks because they won't have the working capacity to be operational," he says. "And that's assuming there's not an earthquake. If there's a big earthquake, all bets are off."
Parts are already falling off. In...